Flying kangaroo rides the storm

Qantas still commands loyalty at home, despite industrial turmoil and a change of direction. But there are warning signs for the national carrier.

We're still loyal to our national carrier ... but is the flying kangaroo testing the limits? Australian travellers still have a high level of trust and respect for Qantas, according to a survey by the Australian National University.

The results, released exclusively to Fairfax, show the airline's union battles and other high-profile challenges have done surprisingly little damage to Australians' perceptions of its brand.

"The data shows that the Qantas heritage is still remarkably robust," says the report by the ANU's Research School of Management. "Indications of this include the passengers and travel agents who think that Qantas is a great airline, who still trust it, and who speak highly of it."

In the survey of 748 air passengers and 363 travel agents or intermediaries, Qantas rated highly for reliability and service, along with general brand respect and trust.

"The Qantas brand still has a lot going for it," the report says. However, the report warns that "chinks are starting to show", particularly with perceptions of how the airline treats its employees.

"Qantas' perceived interest in the welfare of its employees always comes into question," it says.

"The low evaluation of the care Qantas extends to its employees [together with the high level of perceptions of the service that those employees are providing] spells warning bells to Qantas in terms of any public relations war when industrial disputes inconvenience passengers and their travel agents."

An author of the report, Professor John Roberts, says he was surprised that the results were as positive as they were, given the bad publicity Qantas has faced in recent years. "There's still a considerable respect and affection for Qantas, both among travel agents and passengers, although there are signs of danger," Roberts says.

Also surprising to Roberts is the number of people who still believe Qantas can perform well in the market, despite high-profile comments from Qantas senior management on how tough the operating environment is.

"That doesn't seem to have gotten any traction with either travel agents or the public," Roberts says. "They believe Qantas can do well."

The report shows the public believes the external threats facing Qantas are not as bad as the airline's management has made them out to be, during times such as the grounding of the airline's entire fleet late last year.

Consumers and travel agents recognise high fuel costs and competition from other airlines as challenges to Qantas but believe it has the financial capacity to run a great airline and that it is strong enough to make a positive contribution to the local economy.

The ANU says the study was designed not only to investigate current perceptions of the airline but also to look at the expectations we have of our national carrier, and how that affects our perceptions.

"Australians have an emotional connection with Qantas as an Australian iconic brand," the report says. "This bond also comes with a certain level of expectations of how things ought to be done by the airline."

The findings of the survey show that Australians have very high expectations of Qantas as a responsible corporation, with large numbers of participants expecting the airline to make significant contributions to the environment and community.

There is a belief that the airline has the resources to help reduce environmental pollution, through actions such as investing in fuel-efficient aircraft, and to improve its employee welfare. Many feel the airline should also work to help the disadvantaged in society, make donations to worthy causes and support culture and sports.

Yet of the 748 passengers surveyed, 37 per cent named price as their main reason for choosing an airline. Roberts says price sensitivity and high expectations represent a challenging combination for any airline.

He says Qantas is in some ways a victim of its own actions in helping turn the Australian airline industry into a "pizza war", with so much emphasis on price rather than the quality of the offering.

While we have come to expect a certain level of quality of service, we want it at a bargain basement price, Roberts says.

Kangaroo's new route

Qantas is now taking bookings for flights via Dubai, for travel from March 31 next year. While the Qantas-Emirates partnership is yet to secure regulatory approval, Qantas is able to make the schedule changes without approval, routing its London services via Dubai rather than its current hub of Singapore.

Flights via the Middle East have become a popular choice for Australians as they provide a direct route to European ports. Flights to Dubai take about 14 hours, with the shorter leg between Dubai and London taking about seven hours.

jane@janeefraser.com.au

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